JOURNALISTS more often and newspapers at times wear their politics, opinion and attitude on their sleeves or as badges of identity to be displayed for entry into the ring of pugilistic propaganda. The more extremely distasteful the view, the greater its traction — that seems to be the motto. Worse, this hate speech in turn is packaged and leveraged for commercial success and wealth creation.
What better illustrative example of these ugly performers than some of our contemporary news television anchors who hold kangaroo courts every evening to dish out character assassination fatwas or to drum up religious bigotry to turn neighbours against each other. It is in this social and political context the story of The Tribune needs to be retold and cherished. This is a newspaper that grew braving colonial repression, military trials, life-threatening mob violence, loss of all possessions and displacement; yet, it made decency, moderation and sobriety its credo and the bedrock of its journalism.
Even 100 years later, The Tribune’s greatest Editor Kalinath Ray’s writings done during the worst of times stand testimony to a newspaper’s ingenuity to inspire and not incite the reader. When the devil and the angel in us wrestle, it is always an external agency with some social or intellectual legitimacy that tilts the balance. This newspaper always weighed in favour of a rule-based society, decorum in public conduct and generosity in political transactions. But that does not mean that it never called to arms the righteous forces of correction or to account the rulers, past and present. Even while questioning the worst governors, the language was that of reforms and not reaction, and every chargesheet was delivered with copious courtesy and abundance of respect for the adversary even where it wasn’t strictly due.
At the height of imperialist hubris, when the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab province was wrathfully punishing the people for asserting their rights, The Tribune termed his actions foolish or unwise without calling him names, or rather with all the honorifics due to his inflamed sense of self: “Our strongest objection is to the spirit and temper which Sir Michael O’Dwyer brings to the discussion. His Honour knows, as we all do, that the atmosphere is highly surcharged that the public mind is in a state of unusual excitement. At such a time, a wise ruler would do all he could to allay the public feeling to utter the soft word that turneth away wrath. If there is bitterness, he increases it immensely.” This editorial, titled ‘Blazing Indiscretion’, which appeared on April 10, 1919, earned Ray rigorous imprisonment for four months, with the rest of the two-year term suspended.
But his crusade to seek justice for those fallen at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, and all those illegally imprisoned and inhumanly treated by the martial law administration continued relentlessly; yet, with no rancour or personal vendetta. Even while dissecting the government’s decisions, Ray was analytical, rational and above all impartial to the core. The injustice meted out to him did not affect his response to the administration. He was in his writings the very personification of the Gandhian principle of rejecting the evil deed without hating the doer. Gandhi was for Ray, “the most saintly of Indian leaders… in whom Indian humanity has reached its perfection.” But that did not stop Ray from critiquing Gandhi’s Khilafat and non-cooperation movements, particularly the consequences of the boycotting of educational institutions.
Reading Ray is like re-inventing oneself as a journalist and a human being; a unique lesson in the possibility of self-effacing work resulting in a grand project. Ray, in fact, represents that generation of fearless minds, which fought for the country’s freedom in the drudgery of their daily grind. And it gives one immense satisfaction to have refreshed the memory of the role of The Tribune and Ray during the commemoration of the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 2019.
Equally inspiring is the story of the grit of The Tribune staff that fled Lahore at the peak of the Partition riots like millions of other refugees to restart the newspaper from scratch. “The Tribune carried only the name of the paper with it,” wrote Prakash Ananda in A History of The Tribune. Every single article of material possession (but for bank deposits and government bonds) was lost; in that sense, The Tribune’s is the story of every hardworking, honest refugee who recreated his or her life all over again. From a single-sheet two-page newspaper in Shimla in September 1947 to a rebirth in Ambala within months and to cross the grand milestones of one lakh copies in circulation and Rs 1 crore in revenue within a couple of decades sounds like a fairy tale. It indeed was one made possible by formidable people. A fairy tale that gets longer as it is retold.